The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History - Molly Caldwell Crosby (2006)

Part III. Cuba, 1900

Chapter 15. Vivisection

Giuseppe Sanarelli’s paper on yellow fever had done more than spark a public brawl with Surgeon General Sternberg over the cause of the fever; it spotlighted the protest against vivisection and human experimentation in the late nineteenth century. Sanarelli, bruised by skepticism from Sternberg and the Hopkins doctors, boldly countered that he had managed to produce yellow fever in five hospital patients. His attempt at “scientific murder” brought a firestorm of opposition from the antivivisectionists, as well as the John Hopkins doctors. Sir William Osler spoke out publicly: “To deliberately inject a poison of known high degree of virulency into a human being, unless you obtain that man’s sanction, is not ridiculous, it is criminal.”

Vivisection, literally to cut open or dissect a living organism, was an umbrella term that not only applied to surgery and autopsy, but all medical experiments—those on animals, as well as humans.

In the late Victorian age, amid macabre tales of Jack the Ripper dissecting his victims and medical students robbing graves to find cadavers for autopsy study, the antivivisection activists rallied behind their cause—to place limitations on the physicians and scientists assuming a Godlike power over the human body, whether it is alive or dead.

As with most causes, the extremes dominated the argument. Antivivisectionists often quoted Alfred Lord Tennyson whose poem “In the Children’s Hospital” described the surgeon, with his ghastly tools, who “was happier using the knife than in trying to save the limb.” Scientists countered that no advances in medicine could be made without surgery, autopsy and experimentation. The antivivisection movement had even slowed the Typhoid Commission’s work, as Vaughan wrote, “To order autopsies would increase the public furor which at that time was running high among the people.” What’s more, if the antivivisectionists pushed to outlaw all animal testing, they forced doctors to carry out experiments on humans. The activists, vehemently against the mistreatment of animals, had brought humans into the debate as more of an afterthought; in fact, the Humane Society would one day splinter from the antivivisectionist movement.

Human vivisection had a long history, and it would not come to an end until the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in 1972, but it was in its heyday in the late nineteenth century. As one writer observed, “The use of human beings to confirm that a microbe caused a particular disease or to demonstrate the mode of transmission was a harsh legacy of the germ theory of disease.” Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch had provided the techniques necessary for studying germs, which included isolating a bug, growing a culture and finally using the germ to generate disease in a healthy organism, most often a human. Physicians routinely infected themselves, their children, unknowing patients, as well as infants, criminals, the dying and the mentally impaired.

Children were often subjects for medical testing since they were essentially clean slates with little exposure to disease. Nearly a decade before Edward Jenner’s famous vaccination against smallpox, he infected his ten-month-old son with swinepox. When the infant became ill, he tested him with smallpox at least six times. Jenner’s son would remain a sickly and mentally impaired child who finally died at age twenty-one. For the rest of his life, Jenner could not discuss his son without crying. Nearly a century later, Surgeon General George Sternberg and Walter Reed, in 1895, also used children in several orphanages to test a smallpox vaccine. The fact that Sternberg and Reed certainly believed they controlled the experiments and were not putting the children at risk only furthered the idea that they, like God, could conjure disease and cures at will.

One of the notable examples of self-experimentation was that of William Halsted, who tested the anesthetic capabilities of cocaine on himself. He would continue his brilliant career at Johns Hopkins, but suffered a lifelong battle with addiction. George Sternberg had gone so far as to self-experiment with gonorrhea in the 1880s, though fortunately for his wife, he failed to produce a positive result. And even yellow fever had been the subject of self-experimentation in the past. Dr. Stubbins Ffirth, in 1802, attempted to prove the fever was not contagious by injecting himself with tainted blood and swallowing pills made of black vomit. By not understanding the incubation period of the virus, Ffirth unknowingly spared himself a case of yellow fever. Carlos Finlay had been trying since 1880 to prove his mosquito theory of yellow fever, infecting around ninety human subjects, including a group of Jesuit priests, with the blood of fever patients. All had proved unsuccessful.

History’s most famous case of vivisection was yet to come however. As the Yellow Fever Board agreed to self-experiment in the following months, they seemed to have little confidence in the studies. At the very least, they believed it would be a long process with at least a year or two of work ahead of them.